Jailhouse Rot

Americans seem to have a thing for prisons. Not only do we have the world’s largest prison population, we have a rich and incongruous pop culture heritage of films and songs about prison life. On film from Cool Hand Luke to Jailhouse Rock, from Shawshank Redemption to Orange Is the New Black. In song from the traditional “Midnight Special” to Snoop Dogg’s “Murder Was the Case,” with side trips to Merle Haggard’s “Life in Prison,” Sam Cooke’s “Chain Gang,” and Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.” The result is that many of us have vivid but completely inaccurate images of prison. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that we also have incarceration policies founded on myths and misunderstanding.

A recent National Academies report, The Growth of Incarceration in the United States, seeks to establish the facts about how incarceration policies have evolved in recent decades and what social science research can tell us about the effectiveness of these policies in deterring crime, rehabilitating prisoners, and making our neighborhoods safer and more livable. The extent of the changes in recent years is shocking. Even more disturbing is the absence of social science research or clearly stated normative principles to justify the new incarceration policies.

The report comes at an opportune time. After a long period during which politicians from both parties eagerly presented themselves as “tough on crime,” a recent bipartisan groundswell has begun to reconsider incarceration policies. The push for reform emerges from a diverse mix of rationales and a variety of ideological perspectives, which makes for a shaky coalition. This report provides the social science research and guiding principles that could unite these varied perspectives and create a foundation for sensible bipartisan incarceration reform.

From 1973 to 2009, U.S. state and federal prison populations rose from about 200,000 to 1.5 million; it declined slightly in the following four years largely because of reductions in state prison populations. An additional 700,000 men and women are being held in local jails. With only 5% of the world’s population, the United States has close to 25% of the world’s prisoners. Its incarceration rate is five to 10 times higher than rates in Western Europe and other democracies.

And of course there are further disparities within the U.S. system. Long and often mandatory prison sentences, as well as intensified enforcement of drug laws, contributed not only to overall high rates of incarceration, but also especially to extraordinary rates of incarceration of African Americans and Hispanics, who now comprise more than half of our prisoners. In 2010, the incarceration rate for African Americans was six times and for Hispanics three times that of non-Hispanic whites. And although there is no significant difference in the prevalence of illegal drug use in the white and minority communities, African Americans and Hispanics are far more likely to be arrested and to serve prison time for drug offenses.

The growth in the U.S. prison population is not a result of an increase in crime, but of a change in incarceration policy. A wave of concern about preserving social order swept the country in the late 1960s and early 1970s. One manifestation of this anxiety was that officials at all levels of government began implementing new policies, such as requiring prison time for lesser offenses, increasing the recommended sentences for violent crimes and for repeat offenders, and taking a much more aggressive approach to the sale and use of illegal drugs, particularly in urban areas. The trend continued into the 1980s. Federal and state legislatures enacted “three strikes and you’re out” laws and “truth in sentencing” provisions.

As the impact of changes in incarceration policy became apparent, social scientists began studies to determine if new policies were achieving their desired effect. The Growth of Incarceration study committee reviewed this research and reached the following consensus: “The incremental deterrent effect of increases in lengthy prison sentences is modest at best. Because recidivism rates decline markedly with age, lengthy prison sentences, unless they specifically target very high-rate or extremely dangerous offenders, are an inefficient approach to preventing crime by incapacitation.”

Social science and health researchers also examined the effects of incarceration on the physical and mental health of prisoners and on the stability and well-being of the communities from which prisoners came and to which they usually returned. For those who are imprisoned, “Research has found overcrowding, particularly when it persists at high levels, to be associated with a range of poor consequences for health and behavior and an increased risk of suicide. In many cases, prison provides far less medical care and rehabilitative programming than is needed.” The detrimental effects for families and children can be deduced from one shocking and tragic statistic: “From 1980 to 2000, the number of children with incarcerated fathers increased from about 350,000 to 2.1 million—about 3% of all U.S. children.”

Although the report emphasized the importance of heeding social science research and the need for more study, it also noted that scientific evidence cannot be the only factor guiding incarceration policy. It concluded: “The decision to deprive another human being of his or her liberty is, at root, anchored in beliefs about the relationship between the individual and society and the role of criminal sanctions in preserving the social compact. Thus, sound policies on crime and incarceration will reflect a combination of science and fundamental principles.” The committee proposed four principles that could light the way to a more humane and effective incarceration policy: “1) proportionality of offense to criminal sentences; 2) parsimony in sentence length to minimize the overuse of prison time; 3) citizenship so that the conditions and severity of punishment should not violate fundamental civil rights; and 4) social justice in which prisons do not undermine society’s aspirations for fairness.”

The committee did not presume to propose a detailed blueprint for a new incarceration policy. The system of federal, state, and local policies is too complex for any cookie-cutter remedy. Instead, it urged all responsible officials to reconsider the human, social, and economic costs of their incarceration policies in light of their modest crime-prevention effects and to consider reforms that are informed by social science research and guided by clearly stated principles.

The four articles that follow build on the findings and recommendations of The Growth of Incarceration, but in each case the authors go further in understanding particular aspects of incarceration and proposing ways to improve the performance of the system. These articles should serve as a catalyst for a local, state, and national effort to act on the report’s recommendations. Policymakers are recognizing the need for reform of a justice system that is often unjust, and these articles can help them identify the most pressing problems and most promising solutions.

Cite this Article

Finneran, Kevin. “Jailhouse Rot.” Issues in Science and Technology 32, no. 1 (Fall 2015).

Vol. XXXII, No. 1, Fall 2015